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Gulf Species on the Brink?

Can we avoid another disaster? Science journalists reporting on the Gulf talk about the fate of aquatic species after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

By Tasha Eichenseher

National Public Radio’s (NPR) <a href=”Talk of the Nation show was recorded live yesterday at National Geographic, where journalists Joel Bourne and Richard Harris shared stories from the Gulf of Mexico.

Bourne is the author of National Geographic magazine’s October cover story on the Deepwater Horizon spill. Harris is a senior science reporter at NPR.

26101-cb1284640883.jpgPhotograph by Joel Sartore

Also on the show, calling in from Tallahassee, was Ian MacDonald , an oceanographer who studies deep-ocean communities at Florida State University.

Up for discussion were the amounts of oil and its trajectory through Gulf of Mexico waters after the Deepwater Horizon disaster, but perhaps most interesting were the guests’ take on the fate of Gulf species.

With nearly two-inches of oil-contaminated sediment in some places on the ocean floor, scientists are

concerned about the oil’s impact on the species we care about, including the fisheries, said Bourne. With little oxygen in the sediment to speed disintegration, this oil could persist in the environment for a while, he added.

“Animals [on the ocean floor] will eat it. There is little food and they depend on the rain of organic material from the surface,” confirmed MacDonald, before naming a few species, including sea cucumbers, anemones, and burrowing sea urchins that may all be in danger.

MacDonald said he also worries about species that live closer to the surface, including the sperm whale, which, before the spill had a resident population of 1,400-1,660 members in the Gulf. According to MacDonald, this population was already at the edge, and now needs to be watched even more carefully. “There is a possibility that it could get tipped over, that they could lose enough individuals so it goes into a decline from which it can’t recover.”

All agree that scientists will be plagued with uncertainty for some time to come.

“This unfortunate event has been widely described as an experiment,” said MacDonald. “At this point the patient has been given the drug, the treatment, and we don’t see it anymore. he’s swallowed it. The Gulf of Mexico has basically taken this oil in and now we’re waiting to see what happens.”

Oct2010_NGM_COVER.jpgListen to Thursday’s Talk of the Nation.

Read National Geographic magazine coverage of the spill.

And learn more with National Geographic News from the Gulf.